The Back of Beyond: Around the Eyre Mountains to Walter Peak

December 14, 2023
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LIVING in Queenstown, I often gaze across Lake Wakatipu to the huge mountains on the other side of the lake. Strangely enough, almost nobody seems to live on that side.

A view of the other side of the lake from Queenstown

Once you get away from town, the backcountry around Queenstown is practically uninhabited, with traces of old gold mining areas and musterers’ huts, but that is about it.

Sam Summers’s Hut, on Mount Creighton, near Queenstown

And that’s even on the town side of the lake. So, what’s on the other side, I wondered?

Of course, there is Walter Peak Station, which used to be an important sheep farm in the heyday of that industry, but now mostly caters to tourists with high teas and dinners, tame animals, and beautiful gardens.

The headquarters of Walter Peak Station, on Lake Wakatipu

Looking toward the wharf at Walter Peak Station, from the cafe

The TSS Earnslaw sails from Queenstown to Walter Peak and back several times a day, and it’s definitely worth it!

But what of the country behind? One day, I decided to drive from Queenstown to Walter Peak by the overland route, which is nearly 200 km even though it’s just across the lake from Queenstown.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I would be driving around a range called the Eyre Mountains, following the route of a cycle trail called the Around the Mountains Cycle Trail. The people in charge of the Around the Mountains Cycle Trail have kindly allowed me to reproduce their map of the trail.

Around the Mountains Cycle Trail map, from 'Just the Map' on, accessed 13 December 2023

The first half of the journey, heading clockwise from Queenstown, takes you through fairly familiar territory as far as Mossburn, where we had the best pies ever at a cafe and gift shop called Bracken Hall.

Bracken Hall pie, dining indoors

... and dining outdoors

There are lots of places that are more touristy than Mossburn, but not so many that are as authentic.

A little way after Mossburn, on State Highway 94, you turn right onto Centre Hill Road, which becomes a gravel road after about three kilometres. From now on you are in the wild country. After a while, you then turn onto Mavora Lakes Road.

The lonely Intersection of Centre Hill Road and Mavora Lakes Road

Most of the people who come that way aren’t headed for Walter Peak Station (since sensible people take the Earnslaw), but rather to the Mavora Lakes, a popular camping and hiking area and Lord of the Rings location.

The author on the Turnbull Irving Bridge near South Mavora Lake

Spectacular mountains behind the Mavora Lakes

The North or Upper Mavora Lake

The North Mavora Lake is also known in Māori as Hikurangi, and the South Mavora Lake as Manawapōpōre.

Another view of the same section of beach, looking across Hikurangi/North Mavora Lake to the mountains behind

The Mavora Lakes Road ends at Hikurangi, or North Mavora Lake. Backtracking to the intersection with Mount Nicholas Road, you then continue northward along Mount Nicholas Road.

The even lonelier intersection of Mavora Lakes Road and Mount Nicholas Road

-Pretty soon, you come to the Eyre Mountains/Taka Rā Haka Conservation Park. This area is really impressive. The wide-open spaces with a ribbon of road threading through them also remind me of the Ashburton Lakes area and of Molesworth Station, elsewhere in the South Island.

Occasionally, you might meet a stock truck travelling along the dusty road.

There are lots of shelters and toilets for cyclists along this road, and at one of them I learned that the Mavora Lakes area had been a hideout for people dodging conscription during World War One!

As you can see, the area is not exactly all that thickly populated. As in a Brent Wong painting, surrealistic-looking clouds cast strange shadows on the lonely landscape.

This area is fairly high up even on the flat, and must get incredible snowfalls. The highest peak is Mount Jane, probably a pun on the Eyre Mountains.

Somewhere near Von Hill, the road changes its name to Von Road, and you also begin a steep and perilous descent into a canyon carved by the Von River.

Beginning our descent into the Canyon

The canyon forms the head of the Von Valley, which gets broader as it approaches Lake Wakatipu. All of these vons refer to the explorer, Nicholas von Tunzelmann. So, too, do Mount Nicholas and Mount Nicholas Station, the farm (or ranch) over whose lands the road passes on the way to Walter Peak Station.

There are several cattle stops along the road and two fords, before and after the canyon. Because of the fords, it pays to time your journey to coincide with good weather, as this would be a heck of a place to be stuck in bad weather.

The first ford you come to, heading northward

Cattle also wander all over Mount Nicholson Station unfenced, just as in the old time Wild West, so it pays to keep an eye out for them. On the way back, we came to some curious cattle that were standing in the middle of the road and didn’t really want to let us go past till we drove through them slowly. The livestock don’t seem to be used to motor traffic, and the sheep tend to flee as a car approaches.

Down in the more pleasant parts of the Von Valley, we came across the Old Nic Cottage, a historic 1870s dwelling made from flat rocks, with an overgrown rock patio around the back.

Two views of the Old Nic Cottage

At the nearby cyclist shelter, an information panel described how there was a larger homestead nearby which even had a ballroom, but did not survive, unlike the cottage. The information panel also explains how the furniture and other materials for the homestead were lowered into the Von Valley from the plateau above on ropes, which just seems incredible now.

Eventually, after another change of road name and after driving along the lakeshore for some additional kilometres, we made it to the headquarters of Walter Peak Station, the touristy bit that is connected to Queenstown by the Earnslaw.

Drinking coffee at the Walter Peak homestead

Here is a video of the drive and a look around the outside of the homestead, which has lots of old photos and artifacts inside (it’s quite museum-like in addition to having a restaurant and cafe).

It seems that more people used to live on the Walter Peak side of the lake in the past. The old photos at the homestead show masses of folk and various club activities, including a shooting club — a sort of army reserve — all dressed in period uniforms from around 1900 through to the 1920s at least.

About a kilometre from the Walter Peak homestead, along the shore, there is the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC)’s Beach Point at Walter Peak Campsite, which we were very keen to stay at.

Beach Point didn’t get the sun till 7:20 am at this time of the year, in early December, as the sun rises over Walter Peak. I think it would be pretty much a washout in winter. The sun must rise even later where the homestead is located, in a cove known as Beach Bay.

Sunrise over Walter Peak at Beach Bay

Here is my travelling companion Chris, at about the same time and place: it was freezing. But you can see how scenic Beach Point is.

Here’s a photo of me sitting on a park bench, partway along the road from Beach Bay to Beach Point, with Beach Bay and the Walter Peak homestead behind.

Here’s a video I shot the following day, from the other side of Beach Bay, showing the Earnslaw backing out and turning to head for Queenstown. Luckily, the weather had improved.

It was still pretty wintery a lot of the time, even though were at the start of summer. That’s about the only drawback of this part of the country. Oh yes, and check out the Earnslaw in the background of the next photo. It gives you an idea of scale.

Beach Point had good cooking facilities, laid on by DOC.

Cooking facilities at Beach Point

And you could see the sunset over more distant mountains, even if you had to wait for sunrise over nearby ones.

Unfortunately, the campground is maintained by Walter Peak station, which had not got around to replacing the toilet paper in the toilet, and the road to it is also a four-wheel-drive road, barred after the first third and potentially damaging to any regular vehicle. So, we had to walk back and forth from a carpark near the homestead, or drive carefully up to the gate that is barred if we wanted to reduce the walk a bit.

Another thing we did was to walk to Table Bay, which was very interesting. There was an intention book with safety rules by a gate, though I suspect that this is really for people who have organised to go through beforehand: I don’t know if this for spur of the moment walkers.

Table Bay Panorama, left side

Table Bay Panorama, Right Side, showing sloping and flat layers of gravel

The ‘table’ in Table Bay is an almost flat-topped but steep-sided gravel fan opposite Queenstown, towering above the lake by some tens of metres.

On the exposed face of the ‘table’ on the far side of McKinlays Creek, you could see sloping bands of gravel beneath, with flat bands on top. These were laid down when the lake stood at a higher level, 360 metres above sea level as opposed to 310 metres today, and so the table is, technically, a ‘raised delta’.

The sloping bands are ‘foreset beds’ in which the gravel rolled down the advancing face of the delta in deeper water and was therefore always deposited at an angle, while the flat beds are ‘topset beds’ formed on top of the deeper strata. During floods the topset bed would be partly scoured away and would advance the foreset bed, and would then build back up again. Talk about the ‘book of nature’! It is rare to see it so readable.

The Earnslaw looks small as it steams past the table in Table Bay, and the table looks small compared to the mountains behind.

The ‘table’ was covered by the usual flock of timid sheep, and divided into two halves by the partly forested ravine of McKinlays Creek, to which it sloped down steeply on the side we were on, and plunged into by way of a gravel cliff that exposed the underlying layers on the other.

Here is a video I made at Table Bay, in which I pan around to show the mountains behind, the far side of the ‘table’ beyond McKinlays Creek, and various places on the other side of the lake.

There’s more about the lovely Lake Wakatipu area in more of my posts and in one of my books, The Sensational South Island, available on my website


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